More than

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
― Augustine of Hippo

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts,
there can be no more hurt, only more love.

Mother Teresa

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
― C.S. Lewis

“The harder the conflict,
the more glorious the triumph.”

Thomas Paine

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(remnants of Cong Abbey , County Mayo, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

It whispers across a cool morning breeze…

Do you hear it?

It’s the sound of a thousand and one voices drifting endlessly across the ages.
It’s the mournful cry of a dove at dawn.
It’s the melodic symphony of an unseen orchestra of crickets on a warm summer’s night.

It rides along the ocean’s waves…

Do you see it?

It’s the wonderment you feel as you gaze upon the night sky awash in a million twinkling lights.
It’s the brilliance of color bathed endlessly across a skylit canvas as the sun offers a joyful good morning.
It’s the overwhelming eruption and dazzling display of a myriad of blooming wildflowers in a quiet hidden meadow…

It’s a familiar scent wafting upwards from somewhere unexpectedly…

Do you smell it?

It’s the fresh scent of grass from a newly mowed lawn
It’s the heavy smell of rain riding in on the winds before a storm.
It’s a long lost memory catching you off guard as you suddenly capture a whiff of your grandmother’s home

It races from touch to touch…

Do you feel it?

It’s caught up in the soothing memories from a now distant childhood.
It’s the sudden chill you feel as the sun dips out of sight on a cool fall’s night.
It’s the welcoming comfort found in an offered smile.

It’s much more than ancient history or the crumbling bits of mortar and stone now abandoned and long forgotten…

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(crumbling remains hidden away deep within Kevin’s Monastery, Glendalough National Park, County Wicklow, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

It’s really more like the bits of sand found in your shoe after a walk along the beach…small and tiny, yet largely distracting,
rather uncomfortable and most difficult to ignore

The curious and the tourist alike each pick their way through the labyrinth of time long past, as they wander about pondering and musing what it all meant and wondering where it all went.

Yet you know don’t you….?

You know it never went anywhere.

It’s been here all along.

Buried deep within your heart.

But it was never meant to stay buried or forgotten.

Never meant to be for tourists or the curious to gawk and pick.

It was never meant to crumble nor decay

For it is living and breathing and yearns to be shared

It’s the gnawing ache felt in each beating heart.

It’s that nagging feeling of being out of sorts as your spirit seems lost in the fray.

It’s in the melancholy and sorrow that shadows a seemingly empty day

It’s the longing for home when you’re already there.

A Spirit most holy yet hidden, longs to hide no more.

A Spirit Loving yet concealed, longs to be revealed.

A Spirit Mighty and Great, longs to be proclaimed

You know It don’t you….?

Because It knows you….

Authentic representation

To be nobody but myself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else-means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting.
e.e. cummings

No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

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(a charming little sheep sculpture made by artist Marina Hamilton– County Donegal / Julie Cook/ 2015)

I had fallen in love.
For 15 days, I had fallen in love.
I had traversed the countryside, climbed upward and downward to what seemed to be each hill and dale, skirted the coastline, stood upon pinnacle after pinnacle gazing out over land and sea all the while as I tasted, saw, heard, felt and sensed what it was, what it is, that made/makes this island nation so enticing… as I had simply fallen in love with the sheer wondrous beauty which was lovingly laid out by a masterful Creator before my very eyes…

Yet I had fallen in love with something else as well…as in head over heels in love…for I was taken with and smitten by the endless sea of sheep.

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(a soon to be sheared sheep / County Cork / Julie Cook / 2015)

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(a sheep sits enjoying the day, somewhere near Slieve Liag, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

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(a freshly sheared sheep, County Cork, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

White faced, long haired, short haired, with horns, without horns, black faced, black sheep, brown sheep, all white sheep, spotted sheep–every kind of sheep imaginable…I had loved each and every one I encountered.

Why?

I’m not sure…I’ve just always had a deep affinity for sheep, as I have always fancied myself one day being a bit of a sheepherder.

Most likely it’s because I identify with the spiritual analogy of sheep–of our being like lost sheep with Jesus being the shepherd who goes out in search of that one lost sheep–aka, me…
He didn’t let it go, cutting his losses, but actually left the flock to go searching for the not so bright one who wandered off….

Or maybe its the whole sacrificial lamb analogy…the deeply mournful words spoken by the ancient prophets…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Whatever the reason the love has always been there…but the recent adventure, which brought me face to face, pretty much cemented the deal of true love.

Never mind that they are dirty…bearing poop stained butts. Never mind they don’t make for the most loyal of pets–if you can call them pets. Sheep are skittish, flighty, loud, and are certainly not the brightest animals on the food chain— hence why they are more or less dinner for many an opportunist predator…yet there is just something about them…

And maybe it’s just seeing them sitting, standing, grazing in a most pastoral idyllic picture perfect, kodak moment, locale of sheer sheep beauty that just seals the deal–peace on earth kind of wonderful.

How does one capture, taking home that whole feeling of the moment… of that love at first sight sort of instantaneous feeling—tasting it, savoring it, holding on to it for later when both you and it are parted and far removed from the very moment of being delightfully caught together in time?

There are a million touristy, kitschy, chotskies of the made in China variety of the cutesy Disneyesque sheep any tourist can snap up at any numerous shop throughout the country. Yet I wanted something real, something tangible, something as close to the real deal and unique as I could find.

As our time together was drawing to a close, I felt myself slipping a bit into the heaviness of melancholy as I was actually mourning–it was hard to still be happy, enjoying the moment as I knew I was mere days away from departing—and for who knows how long—a year, a few years, a lifetime?
Would I be back?
I could not say.

Wandering into a little shop of locally made crafts, in the middle of County Donegal, I immediately spotted my keepsake.

He was a little sculpted ceramic sheep made by a local artist. There were actually two perched on a display pedestal. I looked them both over–picking them up, feeling the unglazed heft of clay in my hands, the weight of something solid and substantial…all the while as I looked into those black glassy eyes. I made my choice and gingerly carried my “skelybegs” (a butchering amalgamation of the gaelic surroundings) to the counter. As he, yes it was a he I had decided, was a piece of art, he did not come cheap, but to me, he was worth the cost and then some as he spoke volumes of my Irish adventure.

Once home, I excitedly and carefully unwrapped my prized possession. I had painstakingly carried him by hand the final leg of the journey, even on the long plane ride home, so having unwrapped him and seeing he was in one piece, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
I then lovingly placed my little sheep on the counter in the kitchen right next to one of my favorite Russian Icons of Jesus…as it only seemed fitting to have the sheep by the Shepherd.

I greatly enjoy seeing that sheep each and everyday as I lovingly labor about in the kitchen as it helps me to hold onto a very special place and time.
Yet my little clay sheep is but a mere representational reminder of something that, although I deeply love, is far removed from me and my daily life.

The clay sheep is a token of remembrance, a reminder and a representative…
yet he is a far cry from the authentic real deal sheep.
He merely captures the spirit of an enduring love and intrinsic connection to something deeply important.
Which got me thinking…

Jesus–that icon or image of the mystical shepherd sitting next to my little sheep…
Obviously not the real deal either…yet it is rather a visual representative of someone who was… and in my heart and mind, of someone who still is…

Obviously I understand that, feel that and acknowledge that…but what about others…?
What about the countless numbers of non-belivers or other faith believers or even those Christian believers who do not have that knowledge of that tangible Being…how are they to ever understand the depth of the love offered by the one true Shepherd…certainly not from a mere picture, icon or image…it certainly has to be more….

What of those countless numbers of folks currently around the globe, during these terribly trying times, who are more wary than ever before of what being a follower of Christ truly entails.

And then it hit me….

It’s not a matter of those of us who “get it” or truly understand being simply rote, mindless, empty, lip-syncing followers who merely show up to “worship” on Easter, pull out those dusty nativity scenes at Christmas or slap some sort of fish on the back of our car window or flippantly check off on a form that we are of the Christian persuasion but rather it is imperative in these ever growing darkening days that an authentic representative understands that he or she is to step up to the plate…one who understands what it means to be a true imitator of Christ….picking up and taking up the Cross and in turn understanding that that means dying unto self…as an authentic representative understands, grasps and lives the idea that a true imitator of Christ is called to do just that…imitate how Jesus lived and that living often exacts a tremendous price…a price often paid with ones very life, a price we must all be willing to pay….

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
Ephesians 5:1-2

Petitions, Grace and Gratitude (re-mix)

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
John Milton

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(Image: a statue to Saint Anthony in the small chapel of ST. BLASIUSKIRCHE , Salzburg, Austria / Julie Cook / 2012)

***This post was originally published in October of 2013.
Normally I don’t re-publish previous posts.
I had actually shared this particular post yesterday with a friend as I thought the subject was of importance to her and to her current life’s journey. It is a post of literal travels and journeys, as well as journeys which reach much deeper than the mere physical.
Having re-read the post myself, I was moved by my previous words as it is a strong reminder of a faith, my faith, that is so much deeper, so much stronger and so much greater than me or of the current life “journey” I’m finding myself traversing along with my dad as my traveling companion. . .
May you find comfort in the story and the words as well. . .

4/19/15

The deep groaning and creaking sound of the huge ancient wooden door being pulled open echoes loudly throughout the small yet cavernous chapel. It must be the vaulted ceiling helping to carry the sound deep into the hallowed room. The burning votives cast an otherworldly glow. There is a lingering scent of incense mixed with the musty dampness.

There is a lone figure, an older woman, kneeling at one of the front pews…her rosary woven through her fingers, moving ever so slightly, bead per bead as she silently makes her petitions before the small statue.
I once heard it put that religion was just something for old woman and children. Pity that…as that must mean that older woman and children are the only ones who “get it”…everyone else must be too vain, too prideful, too arrogant to truly understand.

My eyes begin to adjust to the lack of lighting as the cool air is a welcomed feeling against the late afternoon Autumn warmth outside. I walk slowly, quietly, reverently down the small aisle, my hand resting on the smooth wooden end cap of each pew, as I make my way to my seat of choice. I kneel slightly, the genuflection of reverence, before slipping into the pew.

I’m not Catholic but raised Anglican–I oddly welcome and greatly appreciate the nuances of ancient worship–more than would be expected from my raising. There is a deep mystery which I believe many in our mainstream churches miss. This Christianity of ours is an ancient faith but that is too sadly forgotten in this age of the technologically savvy mega church. The ancient components to worship lost on those now sitting in stadium type seating waiting, as if ready for the latest block buster to begin, to be wowed not by participation but by passive viewing.

Despite my pained attempts to muffle my movements, each step, each rustle of my jacket, causes deep reverberations through this ancient room, I feel very conspicuous even though just one other person is present. She never wavers from her intense focus to her prayerful conversation. She is oblivious to my presence.

I take in my surroundings before dropping to my knees. The chapel is hundreds of years old as worship here dates back to the 1200s. Dark wood paneling with cream colored walls. Arched vaults line the ceiling with stone columns systematically placed, acting as supports, creating the aisles throughout the room. This is not one of the beautifully bright and light Rococoesque churches of Austria that the tourists clammer to enter in order to view famous paintings, statues and frescos with ornate altars boasting a multitude of plaster cherubs heralding glad tidings. This chapel is small, dark, ancient and humble. Perhaps that is why I was drawn inside.

I slip down to my knees as I make the sign of the cross. I begin my “conversation”—it is one of thanksgiving and gratitude as a tremendous sense of warmth and contentment engulfs me. I then begin my petitions—not for myself, but for those I love who are not with me on this particular journey. After some time, I open my eyes. How long had I been praying? I rest in the moment as a tremendous sense of safety and peace washes over me–it is almost palpable.

Am I a tourist or a pilgrim? I like to think that when I travel, I am a pilgrim. I want to not merely observe, but rather, I want to partake…I want to be a part of each moment in time. I am not here to watch an old Austrian woman in prayer, watching from the shadows of an ancient chapel as some sort of voyeuristic individual or as someone viewing animals in an enclosure, but rather I want to pray beside her to the same God who hears each of our prayers. I am in communion with her even though she never glances my way. I want to appreciate this chapel that is a part of her daily life, wishing I too had such a special and reverent place of retreat.

The history here is so old as countless individuals previously have gathered here to worship, to seek, to lament, to rejoice. I slowly rise from my knees slipping out of the pew. I make my way to the small alter to pick up a fresh votive. I gently touch the fresh wick to one of the existing burning flames–my hand slightly shakes. I feel the warm heat against my cheeks rising from the candles. I place my lit votive in an empty slot silently thanking Saint Anthony and God for this time of communion with not only them but with this woman who never seems to notice my presence.

I am grateful. I slip a few coins into the small metal locked box by the door. I make my way back outside, into the light. It almost hurts my eyes as it is now so sunny and bright. The sounds of the throngs of people on the streets is almost painful to my ears. This is Oktoberfest, the streets and alleyways are teeming with a sea of people.

For a brief moment I had a glimpse of the Divine. I feel different for the encounter. Changed. Better. Not in an arrogant sort of way but more in the way that I have been fortunate to be privy to something so rich and so special. I look out at all of the throngs of people reveling in this historic and exciting city during this raucous time. I slightly smile inward thinking that I hold a special secret that no one else knows….no one other than that older woman back in the chapel and myself.

Petitions, Grace and Gratitude

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
John Milton

DSC00607
(Image: a statue to Saint Anthony in the small chapel of ST. BLASIUSKIRCHE , Salzburg, Austria / Julie Cook / 2012)

The deep groaning and creaking sound of the huge ancient wooden door being pulled open echoes loudly throughout the small yet cavernous chapel. It must be the vaulted ceiling helping to carry the sound deep into the hallowed room. The burning votives cast an otherworldly glow. There is a lingering scent of incense mixed with the musty dampness.

There is a lone figure, an older woman, kneeling at one of the front pews…her rosary woven through her fingers, moving ever so slightly, bead per bead as she silently makes her petitions before the small statue.
I once heard it put that religion was just something for old woman and children. Pity that…as that must mean that older woman and children are the only ones who “get it”…everyone else must be too vain, too prideful, too arrogant to truly understand.

My eyes begin to adjust to the lack of lighting as the cool air is a welcomed feeling against the late afternoon Autumn warmth outside. I walk slowly, quietly, reverently down the small aisle, my hand resting on the smooth wooden end cap of each pew, as I make my way to my seat of choice. I kneel slightly, the genuflection of reverence, before slipping into the pew.

I’m not Catholic but raised Anglican–I oddly welcome and greatly appreciate the nuances of ancient worship–more than would be expected from my raising. There is a deep mystery which I believe many in our mainstream churches miss. This Christianity of ours is an ancient faith but that is too sadly forgotten in this age of the technologically savvy mega church. The ancient components to worship lost on those now sitting in stadium type seating waiting, as if ready for the latest block buster to begin, to be wowed not by participation but by passive viewing.

Despite my pained attempts to muffle my movements, each step, each rustle of my jacket, causes deep reverberations through this ancient room, I feel very conspicuous even though just one other person is present. She never wavers from her intense focus to her prayerful conversation. She is oblivious to my presence.

I take in my surroundings before dropping to my knees. The chapel is hundreds of years old as worship here dates back to the 1200s. Dark wood paneling with cream colored walls. Arched vaults line the ceiling with stone columns systematically placed, acting as supports, creating the aisles throughout the room. This is not one of the beautifully bright and light Rococoesque churches of Austria that the tourists clammer to enter in order to view famous paintings, statues and frescos with ornate altars boasting a multitude of plaster cherubs heralding glad tidings. This chapel is small, dark, ancient and humble. Perhaps that is why I was drawn inside.

I slip down to my knees as I make the sign of the cross. I begin my “conversation”—it is one of thanksgiving and gratitude as a tremendous sense of warmth and contentment engulfs me. I then begin my petitions—not for myself, but for those I love who are not with me on this particular journey. After some time, I open my eyes. How long had I been praying? I rest in the moment as a tremendous sense of safety and peace washes over me–it is almost palpable.

Am I a tourist or a pilgrim? I like to think that when I travel, I am a pilgrim. I want to not merely observe, but rather, I want to partake…I want to be a part of each moment in time. I am not here to watch an old Austrian woman in prayer, watching from the shadows of an ancient chapel as some sort of voyeuristic individual or as someone viewing animals in an enclosure, but rather I want to pray beside her to the same God who hears each of our prayers. I am in communion with her even though she never glances my way. I want to appreciate this chapel that is a part of her daily life, wishing I too had such a special and reverent place of retreat.

The history here is so old as countless individuals previously have gathered here to worship, to seek, to lament, to rejoice. I slowly rise from my knees slipping out of the pew. I make my way to the small alter to pick up a fresh votive. I gently touch the fresh wick to one of the existing burning flames–my hand slightly shakes. I feel the warm heat against my cheeks rising from the candles. I place my lit votive in an empty slot silently thanking Saint Anthony and God for this time of communion with not only them but with this woman who never seems to notice my presence.

I am grateful. I slip a few coins into the small metal locked box by the door. I make my way back outside, into the light. It almost hurts my eyes as it is now so sunny and bright. The sounds of the throngs of people on the streets is almost painful to my ears. This is Oktoberfest, the streets and alleyways are teeming with a sea of people.

For a brief moment I had a glimpse of the Divine. I feel different for the encounter. Changed. Better. Not in an arrogant sort of way but more in the way that I have been fortunate to be privy to something so rich and so special. I look out at all of the throngs of people reveling in this historic and exciting city during this raucous time. I slightly smile inward thinking that I hold a special secret that no one else knows….no one other than that older woman back in the chapel and myself.

“travel thirsty my friends”

“A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of the Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of the is;”
Marcel Proust—La Prisonnière

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(Photograph: the door to a lovely home/ Zurich, Switzerland/ Julie Cook/ 2013)

One of the greatest offenses committed by those who do travel, of those who are labeled simply as “tourists” –is that they do not “see” the places and or sights of where it is a journey takes them through new eyes…that is to say as through the eyes of others. When any of us attempts viewing other people, other places, other cultures though our own eyes–that is through our own experiences, our own filters, we often walk away disappointed and even “less than” by the experience.

The tourist expects to be on the receiving end, to be entertained, to be catered to, to simply and quickly see the surface and just as quickly, move on to the next site or activity—they are receptors, not participants. They merely skim the surface and are often disappointed. The tourist is passive–just waiting for “it” to come to him or her and then very very upset and disappointed when “it” never comes.

The traveler goes open and ready; open to what may lie ahead during the journey. The traveler is ready for what the journey may or may not provide and is then ready to dig deeper if something is missed. The traveler is active, always seeking, not satisfied with what’s merely on the outside. They must go, they yearn to go, beyond what is merely seen on top—they can’t walk away until they know more…

Are you a tourist or a traveler—do you want to experience more from your journeys, your trips? Or are you merely satisfied with merely the top layer of life?

First— never be afraid of venturing beyond your own door, your own driveway, your own yard. If we live in fear of the what if’s; the chances of danger and harm, the mishaps…we run the risk of never knowing anything new or different. We miss the opportunity of making or finding a new friend, a new love, a new joy. We must be ready to go when called, to be open to the new possibilities—for the chance to go, to see, to experience is all a gift—a grand gift we give ourselves and the world.

Secondly— do not sit back waiting for “life” to come to you—it won’t. You must take an active role. You must be willing to get wet, get dirty, get crowded, get tired if you’re going to make more of any journey. Be open to new tastes, new sounds, new sights…then and only then can you truly say that you have traveled and are the better for it.

To “mis-use” a quote from a popular commercial—“travel thirsty my friends”

Holy Week, Fra Angelico and The Convent of San Marco

As we solemnly enter into this most sacred of weeks of our liturgical calendar, I am reminded that this is not only one of the most holy of times for Christians, but with the observance of Passover beginning at sundown this evening, I am aware of the significance that this week has for many of us throughout the world.

As an art teacher and as a person who has spent a great deal of time looking at the relationship that art, in particular painting, has with the surrounding world, I suppose it just makes sense that I should spend this week, this most solemn of weeks, Holy week, looking through that same lens—the lens of art.

I’ve made mention before, in my little “about me” section, that I have a love of Renaissance art, with the emphasis being on the early end of the Renaissance spectrum. Whereas the works of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli—–the larger than life Italian masters I love so much— are indeed beautiful to behold with their use of dark and light– chiaroscuro, the use of extreme perspective in relationship to foreshortening, the beautiful depiction of the human body with emphasis on tone and muscle mass, the beautiful layering and translucent application of color—striking and stunning to those of us who view their works today–for me, however, it is the Medieval works of the Middle Ages that best captures my appreciation as well as imagination.

I don’t know if it is because of the strikingly simplistic style, the often austere subject matter or the mere fact that these artists and artisans were doing the best they knew how to do with the limited knowledge of building, perspective, science, travel and medicine of their day. From the precision of the illuminated manuscript to the muraled frescos of a monastery’s wall, my attention is most captivated by this most mysterious time of our human history.

We are discovering that the Dark Ages, as this time is most often referred, is not so dark after all. I think our oh so modern minds feel compelled to consider those who went before us always as “less than.” They are “less than” in their overall wealth of knowledge. We must not be so arrogant in our thinking as it will be, at some unknown point in the future, that another generation will look upon us and our limited knowledge as just that, “less than.” Therefore categorizing us as lacking, limited, ignorant and simple.

There is beauty in the simple as well as in the complex. It is just a matter of how one chooses to “see” what it is one is viewing. If one chooses arrogance for the manner in which to view previous generations, using the current world as the be all to end all gauge, then anything and everything other than the immediate will be “less than. That is unfortunate. The current generation is what it is, in large part, due to the myriad of previous generations. The building of knowledge is scaffolding and layering of first learned, with next learned, continuing on to a continuum of learning.

We have a tendency of looking back on previous generations and their accomplishments with a prejudice based on our current knowledge. That is often a shame as it prevents one from a deep appreciation for the wonders discovered and practiced in such public forums. What appears flat, static and “immature” to us, the modern viewer, was once considered new, vibrant and complicated. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. It is my hope that as we take this limited look back, and it is important that we do look back, that we will empty our thoughts of our prejudices based on our current knowledge and allow the due appreciation and joy these early builders, painters, sculptors—artists and artisans deserve.

When studying art history most of us have a very small and limited exposure to the actual art we are exploring. So often our exposure is limited to a picture in a textbook, a reproduced poster, a pixilated digital image on a tablet, computer screen, smart board, or television screen. These are basically two-dimensional images of a two dimensional subject. The connection between viewer and, in this case, the artwork, is seemingly one-dimensional—meaning limited. It is all flat and most often the emotion involved is flat.

Every once in a while it is a picture that we view, usually as a child or impressionable learner, which captures the imagination. Perhaps it was an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from the story Treasure Island that drove us on a lifelong quest to one day seek out a tropical beach or to explore the wooden ships of days gone by. Perhaps it was the illustrations of Gustave Doré in Dante’s Inferno, which gave us our most tangible view of Heaven and Hell. For the most part, however, we do not make the emotional connection when viewing a piece of art in such a limited capacity such as that of a book or screen.

I think one of the regrets I have for the way in which we live, often isolated and too busy to know or care otherwise, is that so many of us never have the opportunity of seeing “famous” art work face to face. I can remember standing outside of the Uffizi in Florence just wishing I could have all of my students with me. I thought that if they could just be here, seeing this in real life, it would make a difference. It would affect them, they would be the better for it, it would all make sense, it would move them and they would now understand. They would be the better for it all just as I was for standing there myself—

Art, real art, good art, historical art—it is this which gives us our humanity. Now I know some of you are about to jump in, arguing about art—art for art’s sake, what makes good art good?? This is not that debate—there is no debate here, this is a precursor to looking back. And that is through the eyes of one of the most prolific times of creating art.

And so this was my mindset when I was visiting Florence.

Fienze, as it is known in Italian, is the seat of modern thinking and doing.
Of course some may argue that would actually be Rome, but I’ll argue any day that it is Florence. The birth of the great time period known simply as the Renaissance seems to have sprung forth from the very volcanic ground of the Italian peninsula, which birthed the snakelike Apennine mountains range, the Italian backbone, as well as the headwaters of the Arno River. The irregular and non-navigational Arno, which flows through this enlightened city with its very own fickled Italian ways and its own buried secrets. From the business and banking magnates of the de’ Medici dynasty which helped to create an economically rich location drawing people to this fast growing powerhouse of cities, to the religious and political reformer Girolama Savonarola and his bon fires of the vanities, Florence’s history is a rich as it’s gifts.

And so it was on my 2nd trip to Florence when I was enveloped in just a small thread of the rich tapestry that is known as Florence. There is a small Museum that sits on the northern end of the city. This museum is within walking distance of the famed Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s massive and beautiful David, as well as the Uffizi– albeit a bit of a haul down to this most famous of Florence’s museum located near the Piazza della Signoria. However it is this particular small and unassuming museum which was first a convent/ monastery, home to a group of Dominican monks, that draws my attention. The Museum of San Marco.

It’s setting is still that of a monastery/convent—two interchangeable words for a cloistered religious group of either monks or nuns—San Marco is quiet and lacking the throngs of tourists that flood the more well known museums in this city of museums. There is a peace that prevails the grounds of this once holy site. The area in front of the museum is semi-park like with benches and shade trees. Upon entering the simple, unadorned museum/monastery, if it is summer, one is greeted with a sudden change in temperature. There is a welcomed coolness in the air. Florence, in the summer months can be a humid sauna where just the mere act of breathing becomes difficult. Couple that with the influx of thousands of tourists, jostling for space and air, a place like San Marco is a required respite.

There is a reverence felt within San Marco. I suppose that is because when entering you are suddenly transported to the time when this was a cloistered convent. The monks entered and most likely never left the grounds until their death. I don’t think much has changed to this cloistered edifice since it first became a Dominican convent in 1438. My understanding is that there have been some structural changes and modifications over the years—the opening of ceilings and windows, but over all, it remains as a simple and honest claim to its inception.

The “Glory” which brings one to visit San Marco is not it’s historical presence in this historical city. It is not the simplistic beauty, which calls one to come detoxify from the drowning seas of tourists or the sweltering heat. It is, however, the beauty of what enriches the otherwise barren walls of this convent, which draws the curious, art patron and pilgrim a like.

When I travel, I like to consider myself more of a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I travel seeking the reasons for the beginnings, the reasons of importance, always with an eye gleaned toward the sacred and the holy to wherever it is I may be wandering. I travel with a sense of purpose—to understand, to appreciate. I hope to be made better by the journey. I still may take pictures, head to the big sites, eat the good food, but it is the hidden that I constantly seek. I have never lived my life on the mere surface. I sink down. There comes responsibility and a heavy graveness to living so deeply—it can be burdensome and overwhelming, at times depressing, but it is a life worth living as it provides glimpses of the Divine in an otherwise overt secular world.

Upon entering the “museum” there is a small enclosed garden. Guests will see a small chapel area on their left with the first of what visitors come to see—the frescoed paintings of Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico translates to “angelic brother.” This is a name that he was given most likely after his death as an honor to the type of life he lived. He is also known as Beato Angelico or “blessed angel.” He has long been called Blessed but it was in 1984 when Pope John Paul II officially recognized Angelico as “Blessed”—meaning he could be venerated or recognized as truly virtuous. The name he chose, however, when he took his vows and was consecrated to his order and to his faith was Giovanni.

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Fra Angelico was born, in what historians believe to be, 1390 in an area north of Florence. His given name was Guido di Pietro. He was an artist but also a Dominican friar. He most likely began his artist endeavors as a young apprentice working along side his brother, also an artist and monk.

Vasari, a renowned artist in his own right, but best known for his biographies of the Italian Renaissance Artists, wrote that Fra Angelico was “a simple but most holy man.” He stated that it was Fra Angelico’s belief that one could not paint Christ unless the artist was, himself, Christ like. Before beginning each painting, Fra Angelico would devote himself to prayer.

Visitors to San Marco’s enter the main building where the “cells” of the individual monks are located as well as the sacristy, dinning hall, and library. There is a small area also dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, which are on display under protective glass.

As I climbed the steps up to the 2nd level, where the monk’s cells are located, I was immediately reminded that it was the middle of summer in Florence, Italy. The air was almost stagnant. Suddenly I stop climbing the stairs as I see something that I have seen numerous times before. It is large, larger than I imagined, the colors are soft yet very strong. A sheet of glass protects it. Her body is that of a shy demure girl. The angel who stands before her, Gods’ messenger, kneels before who he knows to be that of the future mother of God.

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The Painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico greets all those who climb the stairs to the 2nd floor just as it did hundreds of years ago when the monks would climb these same stairs in order to retire to their individual cells. Mary and the angel, Gabriel, are positioned in a garden and logia–an area that looks strangely familiar. It is the grounds of San Marco.

As I make my way around the hall there are approximately 45 cells—some cells are along the exterior walls and the others make up the interior wall. The cells are small rooms; some have windows, the cells along the inside wall do not. I can only imagine the bitter winter cold, as the summer heat is proving unbearable. It is however what is painted on a single wall within each cell that draws the visitor to imagine a monk’s time spent in the lonely spartan cell.

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There are paintings of the Crucifixion, the mocking of Christ, the Deposition, the Resurrection, as well as the Nativity, along with the Baptism of Jesus. Various saints, such as Saints Augustine, and Dominic are depicted in many of the paintings. Mary the Magdalene, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Martha are also present in many of the frescos. The frescos were to provide a focus of meditation and reflection, as well as for a bit of comfort, for each monk. The often windowless “cell”, with most likely only a small mat for sleeping, has no other distraction or comfort. A monk’s primary task is that of prayer, contemplation and reflection of the Divine.

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Fra Angelico did eventually venture out from this monastery, painting other significant works with one of those being located within the cavernous Vatican. In the small private chapel for Pope Nicholas V, frescos of the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, adorn the walls. Whereas the message is a bit different from those frescos found on the walls at San Marco, there is no denying the quiet beauty and style of the mystical artist Fra Angelico.

I wish that it was possible for all of us to travel, at will, visiting the places scattered throughout the world where the treasures and masterpieces, as well as the forgotten or the private, pieces of art lurk and dwell. To behold an altarpiece, a painting, a fresco, a statue face to face, eyeball to eyeball, verses a mere printed image in a book or elsewhere—is, for some, life changing, for others, inspirational—only leading to even greater visions.

On this particular day, in a place a world away from my own life, I am confronted with a historical moment captured in time, on a wall, in a convent that was originally intended as a reminder for a simple monk. It is on this day that I become that simple monk, as I am reminded of a brief encounter that would change the world and would also change me, forever.

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